Paul L. Caron
Dean


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Barton: The Law School Crash

Following up on my previous post, Ben Barton (Tennessee), Fixing Law Schools (NYU Press 2019): Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  The Law School Crash, by Ben Barton (Tennessee): 

What’s worse than a decade of financial turmoil? Not learning from it. ...

2009-10 was the high point for LSAT administrations, at 171,514. That figure fell to 101,689 just five years later.

Chronicle

According to ABA data, the last time that fewer students entered American law schools than in 2017 was 1974, when there were far fewer law schools. ...

Fewer applicants and fewer students also mean more competition for the students that remain. This is especially so given that many law schools have attempted to keep the LSAT and GPA averages for their entering class roughly the same, in an effort to maintain the overall quality of their entering classes, or to rise in the U.S. News law-school rankings, or both. As a result, the percentage of students paying full freight has plummeted. In 1999-2000 roughly 58 percent of law students paid full price. In 2018-19 just 29 percent did. ...

There’s an irony lurking behind the crisis of the lost decade. Many law schools have suffered a near-death experience, and the survivors are exhaling gratefully and going back to doing exactly what led them into the crisis in the first place. Law schools have failed to address the root causes of their challenges. Instead of improving their product and lowering their prices, they made deep cuts (largely to faculty) and raised their prices. In short, they have valued their bottom lines over their relationships with students. ...

From 2010 to 2016, ABA-accredited law schools lost 1,460 full-time positions, a 16.1-percent decline. ... [T]he list of most drastically reduced faculties includes surprises. American, Seton Hall, Seattle, and St. Louis are long-standing, top-100-type law schools. The appearance of George Washington, Wisconsin, Texas, and Cal-Berkeley is also pretty stunning. Berkeley and Texas consider themselves to be permanent members of the top 10, and GW and Wisconsin feel the same way about the top 25. While cuts have been deepest at the lower end, faculties have shrunk at every level of the legal academy. ...

[E]very law school in America is under stress. Yet if you look at the vast middle tier, you see extreme similarity: in faculty composition, in curricula, in their promises to create “practice ready” graduates. Why has this herd mentality persisted through law schools’ lost decade? Why haven’t more gone out on a limb to reinvent themselves in light of the present challenges? ...

U.S. News rankings place the University of Minnesota Law School 20th. But applications have fallen by more than half since 2010, and the law school had to cut enrollment by a third from 2010 to 2015. From 2012 through 2018, the university gave its law school $39.9 million to cover budget shortfalls. That’s right: A top-25 law school ran at an almost-$40-million deficit following the crash. It cut faculty and staff and hopes to be out of the woods by 2021. As of 2019, the school was running a smaller deficit and on track to make the 2021 deadline for self-sufficiency. ...

There has been some recent good news for the field: LSAT test taking grew 18 percent in 2017-18 and then another 7 percent the following year. The boom has been attributed to a Trump bump — news stories of heroic lawyers rushing to airports to battle the travel ban and other tales from the “resistance” seemed to make law school cool again. (This uptick has not yet come with a corresponding increase in enrollment.)

Will law-school applications increase? If 2018-19 marks the beginning of a rally, you can expect little change from law schools — merely less cost-cutting and more attempts to increase selectivity with an eye on rates of bar passage and job placement, and (sadly) the U.S. News rankings. Schools will probably maintain their current skinny profile in terms of smaller class sizes and faculties for a few years to see if the bounce continues, but then expect a lot of happy exhaling.

If the recent increase is a dead-cat bounce or flattens out, we will see a slightly different status quo. Law schools will continue to shrink budgets and class sizes and increase non-J.D. programs. In that case, Minnesota, Washington and Lee, and Cincinnati show what’s to come. 

But regardless, the status quo is likely to hold. American law schools have largely been run by and for law professors, and not surprisingly, law deans are finding their faculties uninterested in any sweeping changes that will make their jobs harder. Schools facing closure will obviously have a mandate for a change. Those that face struggles, but not extinction, will very likely stay the course as long as they can.

Law schools, state supreme courts, and the ABA are small-c conservative institutions by nature. In the common-law system, every successful lawyer is at heart a traditionalist because of the centrality of precedent to legal reasoning. Change happens incrementally, and the answer to many questions is, “Let’s see what we’ve done in the past.” This mode of thought has powerful effects on both lawyers and law schools. Especially in a time of crisis, the instinct is to ride out the storm, even if a few captains go down with their ships. 

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2020/01/barton-.html

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